Diane Paulus is a hot director with a prodigious imagination, creativity she has brought to her work on pieces about war-protesting hippies, the beauty and pain of life on Catfish Row, and a dazzlingly transformed Shakespearean romantic comedy.
Her 40th anniversary reinterpretation of Hair
for the Public Theater, her first stab at Broadway, won the 2009 Tony Award as best musical revival. Last month, her reworking of a towering American opera classic — dubbed The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
— won the 2012 best musical revival Tony. She has staged the new touring Cirque du Soleil show Amaluna
and is working on a fresh production of Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin
for the new season at the Harvard-based American Repertory Theater (ART), where she has been artistic director since 2008.
But in 1999, a decade before the fame and greater visibility of the past few years, Paulus and her playwright-husband, Randy Weiner, generated theater world buzz with a wild immersive theater experience called The Donkey Show
A clever mashup of A Midsummer Night’s Dream
and a disco homage
to Studio 54, The Donkey Show
is the summer’s big event at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. Now in previews before its opening on Wednesday, the version staged by Paulus’ ART colleague Allegra Libonati and choreographed by Miami dance star Rosie Herrera isn’t quite like the original that ran Off-Broadway for six years, nor the one that has been running in Cambridge since 2009. The Arsht production is bigger — bigger in cast size, bigger in audience capacity — a kind of made-in-Miami Donkey Show
“The creative impulse was how to illuminate A Midsummer Night’s Dream
,” Paulus says by phone from her ART office. “Randy had the idea of ‘70s disco culture working with the play … that it could be like the Athenian woods, a magical place of fantasy where you could run away from your life. … We started with Midsummer,
but we’re not doing that Shakespeare play. The story and [Shakespeare’s] theatrical imagination are imbedded in [ The Donkey Show
-savvy theatergoers will be able to track the play’s scenes as they’re performed by 20 actors, dancers, singers and aerialists. Yet there’s no Shakespearean text: Disco song lyrics from the ‘70s supply meaning and context, as when the lovesick Helen (Helena in Midsummer
) belts Thelma Houston’s Don’t Leave Me This Way
to Dimitri (Demetrius), who’s hot for Mia (Hermia).
On the other hand, you can put on your boogie shoes, sashay into Club Oberon (the transformed stage of the Arsht’s Ziff Ballet Opera House, where all the action takes place) and spend your evening drinking, dancing and having an experience that’s more Saturday Night Fever
That duality of a play on the one hand and a pop-up disco on the other is what drew Arsht executive vice president Scott Shiller to The Donkey Show
from the first time he saw it in New York. And he thought it would be the perfect follow-up to the arts center’s spring smash, The Lion King
“We knew The Lion King
would be a hard act to follow, and we wanted a show that was the polar opposite. This is definitely not for kids, and it’s the kind of immersive experience we played with in Fuerza Bruta
, Merce Cunningham and what The Project [Theatre] did in the Miami Made festival,” Shiller says. “This is the next step. We have this huge
stage house, but the audience may not even realize it’s on the stage.”
In staging the bigger Donkey Show
, director Libonati is working with a 6-foot-6-inch disco ball, an expanded cast and a potential audience of 800 per performance. Her task, she says, is to make the story “as clear and as deep as we can. The show is spectacular, so a lot is cast members throwing focus [to the next scene]. We have to show the audience where it’s supposed to be looking. Lighting does that too.”
The performers in Miami’s Donkey Show
come from widely varied backgrounds. Singer-songwriter Shira Abergel, who graduated from New World School of the Arts, has appeared in numerous plays, nightclubs and music venues; she’s playing Mia in The Donkey Show
and was Hermia in Midsummer
at New World. Her friend since elementary school, Stephanie Chisholm, is an aerialist who plays Tytania ( Midsummer
’s fairy queen Titania), a disco diva who sports butterfly pasties. Leah Verier-Dunn, artistic director of the Moving Ethos Dance Company and a member of Herrera’s troupe, plays Helen/Helena — a role Herrera played in high school. Jimmy Alexander Arguello , who plays the fairy Cobweb, appeared on So You Think You Can Dance
. Dancer-actor Rudi Goblen, a member of D-Projects, Camposition and Herrera’s company, plays DJ Rudolph Valentino.
They and their fellow castmates were chosen, Libonati says, because they have talent and an additional ability the show requires. “It’s the ability to be calm and focused, but to stand out within chaos,” she says.
Herrera, who has worked on nightclub stages, is getting back to her roots after focusing for the past few years on creating work for her namesake Rosie Herrera Dance Theater. Her style, she says, is “less Saturday Night Fever
and more Michael Jackson.” In working on The Donkey Show
, she dug deeper than just incorporating dances like the hustle and the bus stop.
“I wanted to look outside of ‘70s moves and look at movement qualities,” she says. “I looked at this idea of swag — how you carry your body.”
In conjuring a disco Dream
, The Donkey Show
is unabashedly hot and sexy. There is, of course, the double entendre title. Yes, it suggests the magic spell (here, the play’s “potion” looks suspiciously like cocaine) that causes Tytania to make love to a guy sporting a donkey’s head. But it also refers to the maybe-mythical Mexican donkey shows in which humans and donkeys reportedly have sex.
For Paulus, The Donkey Show
is about transforming what it means to go to the theater,
“I have a strong interest in immersive theater,” she says. “Going out of the 20th century into the 21st, what is theater? Where does it take place? What does it look like? Is it a play on a stage in an auditorium? I fantasize that this is more like Globe Theatre, that people could be more like Shakespeare’s groundlings.”
Inger Hanna, a singer who plays the spicy Club Oberon hostess Pepper in The Donkey Show
, is certain that the audience experience will be just as big as the Arsht production.
“Miami is bold. We do everything to the 10th power,” she says. “You go hard or go home.”